They rise anywhere from 7 to 10 feet off the floor but are just 1 inch thick.
Fresh and engaging examples of the decades-old postmodern idiom of art about art, every one of these works translates a three-dimensional sculpture from the history of art into a simplified two-dimensional cutout.
The instantly recognizable silhouette of Michelangelo’s David dominates the entrance to the gallery space. The other “Sculpture Silhouettes” (as the full series is titled) include a large-headed Easter Island statue and Constantin Brancusi’s iconic modernist masterpiece, Bird in Space.
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While many visitors will recognize these three references, most of the other silhouettes — all based on sculptures made between 1950 and 1999 — will probably be unfamiliar to those lacking an education in post-World War II art history, even though all of them refer to works by famous artists: Joseph Beuys, César, Louise Bourgeois, Duane Hanson, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Pablo Picasso, Robert Smithson, Niki de Saint Phalle and Maurizio Cattelan
Viewed from the front, Coffin’s works resemble the reductive black silhouettes of people and animals used on road caution signs, like the iconic jumping deer or street-crossing pedestrian. And whether the works are familiar to the general public or not, Coffin understands they all translated into his series as iconic — certainly to him and potentially to others.
“I am interested in our memories of iconic forms and why they stick in our minds,” he said.
Because of their thinness, his “sil*hou*ettes” seem nearly to vanish when viewed from the side.
“Our memories of them may … almost disappear but their capacity to stick … is a phenomenon of sculptural icons that we may experience from different points of view and move around,” he said.
Seven of these works were among the 13 that the 43-year-old Coffin, an internationally prominent Brooklyn-based artist, displayed in City Hall Park in New York City in 2009-10 under the auspices of the Public Art Fund. Some on view at Brady were made subsequently.
In the outdoor setting of City Hall Park, Coffin’s “Sculpture Silhouettes” were widely spaced and dwarfed by the surrounding trees. At Brady, the sculptures spread through the cavernous concrete-floored interior like trees in a small forest.
In a conversation at the gallery, Coffin likened the installation to a three-dimensional version of a surrealist landscape painting populated by iconic images that represent ideas. The viewer is invited to wander among them, viewing them from different angles and in different combinations that spark a variety of ideas.
In their presentation at Brady, the works are mounted on pivots that permit them to be rotated 360 degrees.
“By allowing that movement,” Coffin said, “we’re reminded of how we may change our relationship to and potential understanding of things when we change our point of view.”
This show reminds us of the power of curiosity to stimulate learning, of the importance of education and of the satisfaction that the acquisition of knowledge brings.
David Cateforis is professor of art history at the University of Kansas.
Peter Coffin’s “sil*hou*ettes” is on exhibit at Bill Brady Gallery, 1505 Genessee through Nov. 7. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. More at billbradygallery.com.